Fringe, 3x05: “Amber 31422” (2010)
Initially presenting itself as a millennial reworking of The X-Files, J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s Fringe (started in 2008 and set to end in 2013) quickly grew into a mythology-dense stunner of science-fiction show; in fact, perhaps the best, most seamlessly entertaining and smartly addictive science-fiction anything on the air right now. Following a motley crew of FBI agents (Anna Torv’s Olivia Dunham, John Noble’s Walter Bishop, Joshua Jackson’ Peter Bishop and Jasika Nicole’s Astrid) tasked with investigating paranormal and para-scientific phenomena (the title coming from the broad area of “fringe science”), Fringe was initially a by-the-book sci-fi procedural, with hints of a bigger arc spread throughout, again à laX-Files. Near the end of its 2nd season, the bigger picture came into sharp, gripping focus: the writers (J. H. Wyman & Jeff Pinkner and Akiva Goldsman, among others) took the show and turned it into a full-throttle hard science-fiction serial, chock-full of great concepts and imagery, involving at its core a thrillingly escalating and increasingly complex conflict between our reality and “The Other Side”, a technologically-advanced, morally corrupt and bizarro version of our reality most noticeably discernible - in terms of visual storytelling tactics alone, perhaps - for the fact that 9/11 never happened.
Of all the cinematic works concerned with exploring that specific moment of American history over and over again, few have come to embody a specific post-9/11 attitude as fully as Fringe does on a weekly basis (or did: I am currently catching with the third season, and the 5th season is starting soon). 9/11 has often been depicted visually and viscerally for audiences (see: Matt Reeve’s Cloverfield, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds,M. Night Shayamalan’s The Happening), but more rarely has it been reflected upon through the convenient prism of science-fiction; that is the prism of the “what-ifs” and “what-nots”. Fringe is all about alternate histories (both personal and global) and what it is consistently reminding us, North-American viewers, is of how pivotal the falling of the Twin Towers ultimately was, specifically in emotional terms linked to history with a capital H. What is infinitely fascinating to me about Fringe is how current (and as a result, I believe, timeless) it strives to be: had it been made in the 60s or 70s, we’d be constantly reminded of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Guess what? In Fringe’s alternate reality, Kennedy lived. And Martin Luther King Jr. is on the 20 dollar bill.
Fringe, 2x21: “Over There (Part 1)” (2010)
Why? Positioning the enemy as Other has always been a huge part of the post 9/11 fiction exercise, so what better “Other” than the other one, the alternate you, that got it better than you did? These small victories in the fabric of time - Kennedy, Luther King Jr., the Twin Towers still standing - are smartly planted seeds of jealousy that only add to the vilification of this “Other Side” - already fully characterized as morally corrupt, if not completely evil (Walternate - possessing a full brain - and Fauxlivia - free of trauma - both ruthless revisions of their prime counterparts). That said, Fringe also invites us to look forward to the future: these small “positive” aspects that garnish the shiny surface of “The Other Side” hide a corrupt, violent and disturbing state of affairs (literally: the Statue of Liberty is gold-plated and conceals a prison). Our side, in opposition, is understood to be flawed and broken in terms of protagonists (i.e. Walter and Olivia) but also as historically challenged, i.e. through 9/11, the assassination of aforementioned political heroes and more importantly, through Walt’s cross-dimensional kidnapping of Peter at a young age, the crucial event that sets the whole series’ conflict in motion. Yet despite these big flaws in our fabric, the show’s protagonist reality is positioned as morally good, understanding and caring. Simply, “The Other Side’s” title screen color is red; this side’s is blue.
The show’s core episodic structure further reflects this binary balancing act (Fringe Division/FBI’s Fringe team having to confront strange phenomena upsetting the balance of the world). The violation and upsetting of balance - think space continuum ripples and the butterfly effect, but also personal doppelgangers - is constantly explored on the show and. I suspect, will continue to be so until the end. Whether it is by consistently affirming its place in American and televisual history by hammering 9/11 as the defining event of recent American history or else, Fringe also offers this interesting conundrum: what if all the “bad” events in our world were in fact, necessary stepping stones towards a better reality? Can we be good without a bad counterpart? I have other thoughts about the show (and part of my brain itches to compare this to LOST’s basic Manichean, black vs. white, conflict) – but I will leave this reflexion as it until I’m fully caught up.